Glenna Luschei has never been one to shy away from a difficult subject. In the course of her 46-year career as a poet, publisher and patron of the literary arts, she's written about war, poverty, oppression and personal loss, including the deaths of her daughter and husband.
"It's the mission of a poet to come out with the truth, to deal with it," said Luschei, who's been publishing poetry on the Central Coast since 1966. "That gives other people courage. Once you've said (those words), you don't have to be afraid of them anymore."
Appointed San Luis Obispo County's poet laureate in 2000, Luschei has dedicated her career to helping poets shine. "We always publish the known with the unknown and the local with the universal," explained the Solo Press founder and publisher, whose countless contributors range from local writers including Lisa Coffman and James Cushing to nationally acclaimed literary lights such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser.
Solo Press also publishes a smattering of overseas authors, including Chinese poet Changming Yuan and Afghani poets Yosuf Warastah, Abudul Hadi Iqbazada and Nasir Ahmad Noor Mohammed. "My goal is to make the voice of marginalized people heard," said Luschei, who has carried out her mission as an AIDS activist, translator and teacher at Atascadero State Hospital and the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.
According to Kevin Patrick Sullivan, who founded the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival and the Corners of the Mouth monthly reading series, Luschei "pioneered giving a voice to the voiceless." "What she's been doing is offering local poets the opportunity to have their work on a national platform," he said. "To have that kind of opportunity is just fantastic. I can't express enough what it does for one's creativity."
Raised among the bean stalks and corn fields of Iowa, Luschei - who uses her legal name, Glenna Berry-Horton, for business purposes - studied English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and attended the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. When her first husband took a post with the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency in Colombia, Luschei found herself immersed in a South American society eager for artistic expression.
"Everybody recited poetry - the waiters, the cab drivers, the newspaper people. Everybody had a favorite poet and read and exchanged ideas," she recalled. "It was a most stimulating culture."
It was in Colombia that Luschei published her first bilingual book of poetry, "Letter to the North" - "Carte al Norte" in Spanish - in 1967. Back in the States, she launched a literary magazine, "Café Solo," partially as a way to introduce South American writers to American audiences.
The name refers to "straight black coffee, no sugar, no cream," explained Luschei, who moved from Albuquerque, N.M., to San Luis Obispo in 1969 to teach at Cal Poly. "I wanted to publish poetry free of artifice."
"Café Solo's" debut in the summer of 1969 coincided with an alternative press boom inspired by the likes of George Hitchcock's literary magazine, Kayak. As Solo Press grew, Luschei and her staffers began branching into other ventures -- bringing well-known writers including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ernest Gaines to town for a series of Poetry and Jazz Festivals and creating mural, storytelling and theater programs under the auspices of Solo Flight, an arts-centered community outreach program funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Solo Flight eventually segued into the Neighborhood Arts Council, moving from San Luis Obispo to Atascadero in 1977, when Luschei married her husband of 33 years, Bill Horton. (For their honeymoon, the newlyweds journeyed to Stockholm to witness Spanish poet and Solo Press contributor Vicente Aleixandre accept the Nobel Prize in literature.)
According to Luschei, who served as a NEA panelist from 1970 to 1974, Solo Press's slogan in those days was "Follow Apollo. Dine with Dionysius." "I think I think that is probably still the Solo mission statement," she wrote in an email.
Over the decades, Solo Press has developed multiple ways to make its message heard. In 1996, the publishing house and its editorial team - led by Luschei, David Oliveira and Jackson Wheeler - launched the "Solo" literary magazine series, which featured seven issues over eight years.
Annual journal "Solo Café" debuted in 2006. And "Solo Novo: Wall Scrawls" premiered in 2011; its sequel, "Solo Novo: 122 Days," came out in July.
"I try to wake myself to new possibilities," Luschei said, adding that Solo Press's ever-revolving editorial staff keeps design and content fresh. "I don't think we have a singular voice. It's always in flux."
When reading a submission, "We want the feeling of Columbus sighting land," Luschei explained, who has published chapbooks by Scott Barrett, Hugh Fox, Lynn Strongin and others. "It's a revelation - something you hadn't thought of before, something new that strikes truth within you."
Readers may have the same reaction reading Luschei's poems, which appear in more than two dozen chapbooks, artist books and trade books, including 2008's "Total Immersion," 2009's "Salt Lick" and 2011's "Leaving It All Behind." In those pages, Luschei uses vivid language and wry humor to write about topics as deeply personal as divorce and as playful as a child's first cuss word.
In 1999's "A Near Country: Poems About Loss," which Luschei co-wrote with Oliveira and Wheeler, the poet explores her grief for her daughter, Linda, who died of AIDS in 1994. "Witch Dance," published in 2010, reflects Luschei's response to her husband Bill's death a year earlier "with unshakable honesty and passion, and with imagery that is almost painful in its simplicity and starkness," Pedestal magazine reviewer JoSelle Vanderhooft wrote.
"Glenna's poems are so much like her. They're so full of beauty and grace," Sullivan said. "They feed you as well. You read Glenna and there's always a sense of receiving of you, being the fortunate one for coming across this."
Added Los Osos author Dian Sousa, whose poems appear in a handful of Solo publications, "She comes out the American tradition of the every day." "It's very plain but there's the small shadow of the miraculous in it," the 2008 San Luis Obispo poet laureate said.
Also evident in Luschei's work is her passion for travel and fascination with other cultures. For her 2006 artist book, "Enigmas," she translated a series of "spiritual puzzles by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun and self-taught scholar and poet, into English. "In Mexico, they compared her to a supernova," said Luschei, who holds a doctorate degree in Hispanic languages and literatures at UC Santa Barbara and an honorary doctorate from St. Andrew's Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C.
This year, Luschei's travels took her to Cuba, France and Tunisia in search of artistic expression. Her experiences meeting Arab Spring activists inspired the upcoming issue of "Solo Novo," "Art and Revolution."
"Politics is a lifestyle. It's a commitment you make to other people in the arts," said Luschei, who has dedicated both time and money to keeping the literary community alive. In 2002, she donated $500,000 to the University of Nebraska, endowing the editorship at the school's Prairie Schooner literary magazine.
Luschei, who divides most of her time between her San Luis Obispo home and her 132-acre avocado ranch in Carpinteria in southeastern Santa Barbara County, is currently working to establish a poet laureate program in Ventura. "The Central Coast is just a stellar spot for poetry," she said.